Laika is one of the world's most famous dogs: On November 3, 1957, during the early days of the Soviet Union's space program, she became the first animal to be launched into space. She died not long after launch, but exactly 65 years later, the puzzle platformer Space Tail: Every Journey Leads Home will, with some effort, deliver a happier ending.
Space Tail tells the tale (it's a pun, see) of Bea, a dog astronaut (dogstronaut?) who makes it much deeper into space than any previous terrestrial explorer—to an entirely new alien world, in fact. Now it's time to get home, but just like in real life, her human masters have apparently dropped the ball on that part of the operation, so Bea is on her own. Fortunately, she's a pretty resourceful dog.
I'm not really a fan of conventional jump-or-die platformers, but I do dig more puzzle-focused, atmospheric side-scrollers—I love the Trine games, for example—and Space Tail seems very much in that vein. Bea does more than just run and jump: She can also use her highly attuned doggo senses of sight, smell, and hearing to help navigate the world and its obstacles. And rather than dodging or stomping on the alien creatures she meets (there are alien creatures to meet, by the way), she can greet them with a number of different gestures, like raising a paw, rolling over, or butt-wiggling, in the hopes of making friends. Barking and growling are also options, if it doesn't look like friendship is going to sell. Either way, your newfound friends and enemies can help you along your journey, for instance by carrying you past obstacles, or just smashing holes through them.
Telekinesis also comes into play, and fairly early on in the adventure Bea meets a wisp named Rose, who may or may not be the servant of an alien god. There's lore, too, because of course there is: I stumbled into a hidden cave with a picture of a big dragon (or something) on the wall, which Space Tail informed me I could scan to learn more about, you know, everything. There's a lot going on.
Publisher Longterm Games called Space Tail a tribute to space exploration and its early non-human pioneers. "Real-life dog astronauts and cosmonauts didn’t have a happy life and many were lost so mankind could reach the stars," the studio said. "Space Tail wants to show an optimistic and heartwarming tale of a dog that returned from its journey and make players consider how much we owe to our four-legged friends."
To be honest, I was halfway to hooked by the basic concept—"dog astronaut needs to find her way home"—and then developer Enjoy Studio made Bea look like Laika and gave her a teddy bear friend, and how do you say no to that? I haven't played anywhere near enough to make a definitive judgment but so far I like what I see, even I've died a little more easily than I expected: I've fallen off a few ledges, which I expected, and got blown away by a patrolling sentry robot, which I did not. Fair to say that the ambience is cute and cuddly, but the edges are still sharp.
Space Tail is coming to Steam (and Nintendo Switch, if that's your thing) on November 3, the day of Laika's launch. You can take the early parts of the game for a spin right now by way of a demo that's available as part of the ongoing Steam Next Fest, which runs until October 10.